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May 19, 2011

Few issues have proved as thorny to the coalition government as those of access to higher education and the part that universities play in social mobility.

So it was perhaps not surprising that a kite-flying exercise by ministers caused such a furore last week, when it was suggested that universities could recruit unlimited numbers of home students who were able to pay their tuition fees upfront. The story - broken by Times Higher Education - provoked a fierce debate on the blogs and comment threads.

Mark Leach, editor-in-chief of WonkHE and senior policy adviser at the University Alliance, offered one of the more measured analyses. "David Willetts (the universities and science minister) has underestimated the toxicity of a policy like this, which touches a very raw nerve indeed," he writes. "Still wounded by the fees and funding settlement, this will feel like a kick in the teeth to those still clinging on to the idea that access to higher education should never depend on the ability to pay."

The idea of allowing extra places for those who can pay upfront sends a "deeply conflicted message", he says. "This policy simply helps to re-enforce the counter-narrative that suggests it is indeed the size of your wallet that matters if you want to go to university."

The story, which even forced a clarification from the prime minister, was also analysed by William Cullerne Bown, founder of Research Fortnight. In a post on Research Blogs, he argues that while Mr Willetts may be "soundly motivated...the actual policy itself is terrible". "The penny seems to have dropped at (the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) that rich kids at top universities could pay more. There's maybe £1 billion in income that is being lost to universities this way...so the idea of getting hold of this income and using it to support kids from poor families through university could be socially progressive. This is the bit I think Willetts has got right," he says.

Meanwhile, Ferdinand von Prondzynski, vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon University, points out on University Blog that the feverish tone and pace of the higher education debate is not necessarily benefiting the sector. "There is now a dangerous level of instability and unpredictability in English higher education, which is unsettling the sector and affecting its reputation at home and overseas," he writes.

Those looking for a little relief could do worse than visit Occam's Typewriter (http://occamstypewriter.org/), a collective of science bloggers. In "Girl, Interrupting", Sylvia McLain, a biophysicist at King's College London, discusses owning a wormery.

"My old kitchen wormery is full of Lumbricus rubellus and Eisenia fetida - also known as red, tiger or brandling worms," she writes. "These are proper composting worms, which aren't the same as earthworms. Earthworms merely move around soil while composting worms actively compost; that is they eat your garbage turning (it) into lovely nutrient rich soil."

One imagines that Mr Willetts may even now be turning his latest policy papers into a mulch for the vegetable patch.

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to john.elmes@tsleducation.com.

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